"If the world is upside down the way it is now, wouldn't we need to turn it over to get it to stand up straight?" - Eduardo Galeano
The following is the story of an ongoing body of work and a related 2005 incident, as recounted in my 2013 book Philosoprops: A Unified Field Guide (freely available as a digital download).
CHAPTER 7: COLLECTIVE CHANGES OF MIND
Surrealists of the 1920s and 30s made a game of creating collaborative texts and drawings by inviting players to add something to a work-in-progress without complete access to previous contributions. This process, called an Exquisite Corpse, is designed to challenge rational, literal, possessive modes and invite elements of absurdity, chance, and collaboration. Similar playful, nonhierarchical, participatory activities are evidenced throughout cultures in children’s songs, rhymes, and playground games; improvisational music; slang; and particular idiosyncrasies of fashion. Nowadays, artifacts of creativity are embellished and reinvented constantly in the form of internet memes. An image of a pet or person caught with an awkward expression takes on different meanings according to slight variations in added text. Someone initiates a simple action such as striking a particular pose in an unexpected place, others follow suit, and the documentation becomes a collective body of work. Formal training in art is not necessary – anyone with a simple internet-connected electronic device and a few basic skills can participate.
Graffiti is another way in which creative collaborations can be carried out in public spaces.
The upside-down LIFE project began shortly after George W. Bush took office for his first term as president. So much (on fronts ecological, social, and political) of what was going on in the world at the time seemed overwhelmingly absurd and out of control. It was hard to ignore the blatant signs that power was being strategically taken out of the hands of the many and concentrated in the hands of the few. The job of the despot is made exponentially easier if he (or she) is able to weaken a population emotionally, to convince people of their powerlessness. Individuals who are able to think critically and maintain a sense of empowerment do not work to the advantage of a would-be oppressor. The moment we recognize that something is amiss, we can begin to imagine it corrected and take steps to rectify it.
The upside-down LIFE posters are subtle empowerment propaganda. White block letters on a red background, when seen upside down, appear, for a fraction of a second, as abstractions. The brain almost instantaneously turns the image around, rendering it legible. The act of making things right begins with this kind of simple mental shift.
Since 2002, the upside-down LIFE posters on newsprint (and smaller, similar stickers) have been added to already-evolving street art compositions in places around the world. In 2005, the piece took on an unexpected dimension when I was arrested in New York City for graffiti.
(Edited slightly from original by author. Alyce Santoro, Wooster Collective, November 2005)
Last night was a glorious crystal-clear autumn evening in New York City. I got off the F train bound from Brooklyn and wandered up First Avenue, past a few bustling bars, past the tiny DJ booth/storefront, past a multitude of pizzerias, taquerias, and laundromats, and past the row of Indian restaurants dazzlingly decorated with multitudes of disco balls, chili pepper lights, and Christmas garland that I’d been frequenting since high school. One of the Indian markets had set up its wares on the sidewalk, and I stopped to admire tables stacked with bags of spices, teas, dried beans, candy-coated fennel seeds, and dried fruits. It made me happy to be a New Yorker, where I could stumble upon orange flower water, black sesame seeds, and homemade mango chutney on a street corner.
After a delightful meeting with some friends at a bar on Second Ave, I was meandering back to the train while keeping an eye out for appropriate spots to place a few of my upside-down LIFE stickers. I’m always on the look-out for those little gems, spots that already have some renegade markings in spray-paint or stickers, where the blocky red upside-down LIFE might serve to complement an already-evolving composition. That’s the addiction for me with graffiti…it’s like a musical improvisation, everyone playing off the notes that others add.
Sometimes you get to know a local player, and relationships form. For example, there’s someone who does a spray-paint stencil of Bush’s head with the circle-slash symbol around it, and whenever I spot one I almost always stick one of my DUMP W (upside-down) stickers nearby. Here in Brooklyn, someone with a sticker the exact same size as my DUMP W ones, only with an ominous black background and a large white “W” with the words THE PRESIDENT underneath, has been consistently sticking their sticker OVER my sticker. It’s a thrill to know there is a Bush supporter out there who not only GETS my humor, they’re actually taking the time to engage in the game with me.
See Fig. 1, W vs. M:
In the case of the upside-down LIFE, there’s one sticker in particular – a similarly-sized one with blue block letters on a white background that reads ALIFE – that I always try to get close to, without being sure of its meaning (learned later it is a streetware brand).
So last night, strolling along, I spotted the ALIFE tag at the base of a light pole (at the southwest corner of 2nd Ave. and 3rd St.). I took a moment to contemplate placement, then struck. Just then I noticed what seemed to be an off-duty cab and three motley-looking cabbies eyeing me. One moved closer and said with an accusatory tone in the manner of one who is accustomed to dealing with unruly children, “What did you just do?” I admitted cheerily, but not entirely without suspicion, that I had attached a sticker to the light pole. I handed him one of the remaining stickers in the interest of clarification. The man said, again, with more sternness than seemed necessary “What does it MEAN?” The goal of much of my work is to evoke this very response – I am hoping to draw people into discussions about the meaning and inspiration behind the pieces, many of which I have come to refer to as “philosoprops”. I replied, “It’s a take on the LIFE magazine logo. I usually place it where there’s already a patch of interesting graffiti where it can contribute to the composition somehow.” And the man said, as if I hadn’t revealed something that would make my true criminal nature clearer in his mind, “BUT WHY DID YOU PUT IT UPSIDE DOWN?”
By now of course I realized I was in some kind of trouble. But it seemed I was still ahead of the game – the officer was asking some excellent questions. the sticker was indeed working its magic as a “philosoprop”, and I guessed that before long the man would come to appreciate the concept, at least enough to let me off whatever hook I may be on.
Then the woman officer said, “We’re going to have to arrest you.” “For putting a sticker on a pole?!” I blurted back in disbelief. She replied, “That’s the law, and it’s our job to enforce it.” Then she took my purse and handcuffed my hands behind my back. I was dumbfounded. I suggested that perhaps just making me pull the sticker off the pole and promise not to do it again would be sufficient punishment for a first offense, but they did not agree. They ducked me into the cab, which was not a cab at all, but a squad car. I sat in the back seat with the woman cop, while the more subdued of the two men sat in the passenger seat and took notes. What was my age? 37. Had I ever been arrested before? Nope, never even had a speeding ticket. Did I have any drug paraphernalia, weapons, or sharp objects on me? No…I assured them I was about the most innocuous offender they could possibly have hoped to capture.
They wanted to know more about my motives. Why was the sticker placed upside down? They passed around Polaroids of the crime scene. They were so perfect – the best philosoprops I could have hoped for. I wanted to hold them but couldn’t due to the handcuffs. Before I realized how it might sound, I said, “I’ve never been handcuffed before.” The men chuckled awkwardly, then the one driving said, “I’m not gonna touch that one!” and the lady cop added, “Yeah, you better not.”
I explained that I was actually a pretty legitimate artist. They asked if I could prove it, and I offered them the address of my website. They seemed strangely impressed. The driver immediately called a friend from his cell phone and had him look up my website while we were driving. Sure enough, the guy could see a picture of his friend’s captive, along with pictures of her work, including images of sites where I’d wheat-pasted the larger (and potentially more physically destructive) upside down LIFE posters. Ironically, I’d started using the stickers because they were quicker and less conspicuous to deploy than the larger silkscreened posters.
“The upside-down LIFE is just about how crazy things are in the world right now…everything’s a mess,” I said. And they agreed. They reminded me again that they don’t make the laws, they may not even agree with them, they just enforce them. They said that they’d just come out of a meeting with Mayor Bloomberg, and that one of his big campaign mottoes is “A Clean City is a Safe City.” I grumbled.
We arrived at the precinct in Alphabet City, on Ave C and 8th St. They took me into the room with the cells. There was a sign on the wall that read “Search your prisoner carefully!” They removed my belt and jacket. Nothing with cords or strings allowed. I could keep my shoes, since cowboy boots have no laces. I was also allowed to keep my book – Mexican Spanish – which served as a kind of lozenge – during the time I was incarcerated. I could make one call using my cell phone, so I called my roommate to let her know that I would be late getting home because I was in jail.
They shuffled a group of men out of one of the cells and into another, uncuffed my hands, led me in and shut the door behind me. I was locked in. Locked into a concrete and metal room behind bars. For putting a sticker on a pole. I was acutely aware of the absurdity of the situation. Fortunately, it was under circumstances that were more amusing than horrifying. But I suddenly had a keen new awareness of the fine line between the two. The fact remained that I had been jailed for virtually no reason. What about others wrongly accused of much more serious crimes, others much less socially privileged than myself? What about people from other countries who don’t get to make their one phone call, who are locked away without hope of a fair trial or even humane treatment? I stared at my book, attempting to study Spanish vocabulary between thoughts. How would I have been feeling without the refuge of my book? Would I have been able to quiet my mind, to remain calm with absolutely nothing as a comfort or distraction?
I was removed from the cell for fingerprinting. I put my palms on a scanner. The officer (the one who’d been driving and was wearing a sweatshirt that said “DANGER: EXPLOSIVE: KEEP BACK 500 FEET”) rolled each of my fingers across the glass as I watched my prints come up on the screen. Then he took my mug shots with a digital camera. It was all I could do not to burst out laughing. Mug shots! I was returned to my cell and assured that they’d try to expedite my case as quickly as possible. I thanked the man, who seemed to have warmed up considerably, and went back to my book.
The woman cop came and asked me if I wanted a soda. I said no thanks, but I’d love some water. She went off to the vending machine and came back apologizing that they were out of bottled water. She said she didn’t want me drinking the tap water because it might make me sick. She assured me that I’d be out within an hour and offered me a piece of gum.
Then some other officers brought in a young woman, maybe 19 or 20, crying hysterically. My cops came over and advised me just to ignore her. The girl came in and sat on the other end of the single wooden bench, leaning her head against the concrete, sobbing. After a few minutes I asked her what she was in for. She said trespassing, that she’d been squatting and had gotten caught on the roof of the building trying to escape. She asked me what landed me in jail, and I said graffiti. She asked me what kind, and I explained. She said that she'd been making a political statement by squatting, and that she was an anarchist. I had the impression that this was not my cellmate’s first arrest. With exposed pink satin thong underwear, she climbed the bars, yelling, demanding our captors bring her a cigarette. After a while one appeared, and we shared it. She fell soundly asleep with the cigarette still burning between her fingers.
An hour and a half went by, and the officers fumbled with paperwork and chatted about cat food at a table not far from my chamber. Once in a while Mr. Explosive would turn to me and say, “Just a few more minutes!” or his cell phone would ring and it would be his buddy on the internet with more questions about my work. They’d discovered the fabric I weave from cassette tape and wanted to know more about my connections with the band Phish.
The woman cop and Mr. E. went to go check the computer to see if my prints had come back from the main office in Albany. That left only the quiet cop with the Yankees sweatshirt to keep an eye on me. I asked him about the water situation, and again I was advised against drinking the tap water and reassured it wouldn’t be long before I’d be out. I asked him if he’d been doing this job long, and he said 12 years. I told him it felt strange being locked up, but that I felt pretty confident, being in the United States and in New York City in particular, that nothing too terrible was going to happen to me. I told him that I trusted completely, for example, that if I really needed water that someone would bring me some, and how ironic it was that the reason I had none was because they were trying to find me the bottled kind. He told me that he’d been in the military for 8 years before becoming a cop, and how during that time he developed an appreciation for the things we take for granted in this country, like clean tap water and electricity. We agreed that Americans, as a whole, are pretty spoiled. I told him I’d always wondered what it was like to be in prison, and he offered that, although I was the one behind the bars, that he couldn’t exactly leave his post either, and in fact was serving his second 12-hour shift in a row. He said he never expected to be a cop, it just happened because he needed to pay the bills. He said he doesn’t even agree with a lot of the laws he enforces…he’s just doing his job. I suppressed the urge to ask what he would do if he felt he had a choice.
And I thought to myself, this experience is becoming oddly reminiscent of a scene from Beckett or Sartre. Suddenly this poor man is the prisoner, and I am as free as a bird.
I’d been brought in at a little after 9pm, and now it was after 2am. I’d been studying Spanish during pauses in the conversation. Mr. E. was getting increasingly apologetic about the amount of time it was taking to free me – the computers in Albany were down. I assured him that I was fine, just a little thirsty. It would be no more than another half an hour. Prisoners came and went in the cell next to me, but I couldn’t see them, though I could hear them. One had been yelling for quite some time that he needed to go to the hospital. Others were singing. Another man was being asked by an officer if he was a US citizen. He said no, but that he was a legal resident. The officer asked him where he was from, and he said Bangladesh. The officer said, “Where’s that?” The man explained very patiently and politely in a voice completely devoid of accent, adding that he’s lived in New York for over 10 years. The officer replied, “Well, it looks like you’ll be going for a ride then.” The man said, “Sir? What do you mean by that, Sir?” And the officer said, “We’ll be shipping you back.” And then there was silence.
I stared at my book and thought about what was going on all around me. My cellmate would be staying all night, since she’d been picked up without ID. I would be getting my paperwork from Albany and would have to appear in court on December the fifth. My officers assured me that I’d be let off on “time already served,” as long as I showed up in court. Otherwise, there would be a warrant out for my arrest. My contact lenses were dry. I was thirsty. I’d been locked up for 6 hours. What about diabetics who find themselves suddenly in jail without insulin, or people who have children or pets, or those who have to be at work on time? What about people in other countries, travelers, people far away from home? What happens to prisoners in an earthquake or other natural disaster? I’d put some LIFE posters up in Mexico over the summer. One day I traveled across the border from Texas by myself, and no one even knew I was there. I had no knowledge of Mexico’s graffiti laws. What would have happened if I’d been arrested there?
I asked once again for water. The man with the Yankees sweatshirt said, “Really, Alyce, it will just be a few more minutes now…please…stop reading…just rest.” I shut my eyes and leaned back against the concrete.
It was 3:30am when he came with the key to let me out. The lady cop had gone home, but the two men brought me out into the precinct where there were lots of other officers milling around. The Yankees guy handed me the paperwork and stood close by, flipping the pages and pointing out where to sign. Mr. E. reminded me several times not to forget to show up for my court date. I thanked them as I walked away, and smiled and waved as I pushed my way through the revolving door out onto Avenue C.
I felt strange. Woman alone, ejected onto desolate city street in an unfamiliar part of town at nearly 4 in the morning. Thank goodness the police are around keeping things clean and safe. I walked toward a cluster of bars, figuring the odds of getting a cab there would be greater than they’d be directly outside the jail. A cab came, and I hopped in. The driver and I talked about how magical the city looks in the middle of the night, and about how easy it is to get around without any traffic. I couldn’t identify his accent. It wasn’t until we were around the corner from my house that he asked me what I’d been doing in that part of town at 4am. I told him I’d been arrested for graffiti and explained a little about the stickers. I wish I could recall the witty quip he made while the machine tallied up the fee for the ride. $15. I handed him a $20 and told him to keep the change. He handed me back a $5 and said, “No way, you’ve been through enough tonight…I wish I could do more.” I tried to give it back and he pushed my hand away. I told him I would have liked to give him some stickers, but my supply had been confiscated. We laughed and said goodnight.
I unlocked the door to my apartment at a little after 4am. I took a shower and put on the teakettle. I stood at the counter waiting for the water to boil, laughing out loud as I imagined the next morning, explaining to my parents that I’d spent the night in jail. My poor parents have been through so much with me, their only child, always off on some crazy adventure, or misadventure, as the case may be. Thirty-seven years old, in jail for putting a sticker on a pole.
I drifted off to sleep in my own room, in a bed with a pillow and covers.
ADDENDUM: DEC 5, 2005
As I walked from the subway station toward Manhattan Criminal Court at 100 Centre Street, I considered my defense. In my research I’d discovered that only three items are considered true “graffiti implements”: etching powder, spray paint, and wide-nibbed permanent markers. In no way are stickers considered contraband. Wearing an upside-down LIFE t-shirt and with photos of the crime scene in hand for reference (I’d gone back to the site the day after the incident to take them), I planned to provide the judge with a monologue on the nature of my action – I would explain that I am a conceptual artist and that the upside down LIFE project happened to be about how topsy-turvy things had become in the world. Turning things around - making things right – would require a mental shift. Just then I happened to pass under a metal scaffold. Stuck to one of the uprights was a small square “Mike Bloomberg for NYC” campaign sticker. I recalled from my research into the rules regarding publicly posted propaganda that campaign paraphernalia is only permitted to remain on display for a brief period after November 8th. I was pretty certain the mayor was in violation of his own law. In my mind, my defense strategy was changing.
I sat in the courtroom with a hundred other petty offenders. When my name was close to being called, I was assigned a public defender. He led me outside and asked me to explain my case. I began to tell the story, and he stopped me immediately wanting to know what does the sticker mean? I was amazed – content and intention really seemed to make a difference.
The lawyer planned to try to get me off on time served. I was both disappointed and relieved when he suggested that I not do any of the talking.
When my name was called, I followed him up to the bench. I stood behind him while he explained that my sticker consisted of “non-specific philosophical humor,” which I, of course, appreciated. The judge tried to charge me with possession of a graffiti implement, and the defender countered him. The lawyer, the judge, and the DA guys ("The People") argued back and forth (not without smirking) about it being a first offense, that there were prior markings on the pole, and that I had already spent an entire night in jail. It also seemed important that the nature of my message was non-commercial and basically apolitical. At first they were going to sentence me to one day of community service (typically consisting of erasing other peoples’ graffiti) and give me an ACD ("adjournment on contemplation of dismissal"...the case dropped and fingerprints destroyed if I managed not to get arrested again for 6 months to a year) but the lawyer was able to convince the judge to eliminate the community service on the basis of time served. I was on ACD, but was freed with no other fines or punishments.
ADDENDUM #2: September 2009
I was careful not to deface any public property in New York City for the full year. I moved to far west Texas in 2006 where I enjoy committing occasional acts of “non-specific philosophical humor”. As far as I know, my criminal records have been destroyed.
The term open work, according to writer/semiotician Umberto Eco, refers to forms of art that leave elements purposely unfinished or ambiguous, to be interpreted, contributed to, or completed by the viewer, reader, or listener. Open works stand in contrast to pieces that contain themes intended to evoke a specific emotional response (the valor of war, the sacredness of a deity, or the majesty of a ruler, for example). Whereas the purpose of conventional, “closed” forms of art is often to bolster the artist’s (or patron’s) agenda, the meaning of an open work is unique to every individual who encounters it.
In his book The Open Work (Opera Aperta), Eco explains:
“After all, the crisis of contemporary bourgeois civilization is partly due to the fact the average man has been unable to elude the systems of assumptions that are imposed on him from the outside, and to the fact that he has not formed himself through a direct exploration of reality. Well-known social illnesses such as conformism, unidirectionism, gregariousness, and mass thinking result from a passive acquisition of those standards of understanding, and judgment that are often identified with the “right form” in ethics as well as in politics, in nutrition as well as in fashion, in matters of taste as well as in pedagogical questions.
At which point we may well wonder whether contemporary art, by accustoming us to continual violations of pattern and schemes – indeed, alleging as a pattern and a scheme the very perishability of all patterns and all schemes, and the need to change them not only from one work to the next but within the same work – isn’t in fact fulfilling a precise pedagogical function, a liberating role. If this were the case, then its discourse would go well beyond questions of taste and aesthetic structures to inscribe itself into a much larger context: it would come to represent modern man’s path to salvation, toward the reconquest of his lost autonomy at the level of both perception and intelligence.”
In the introduction to The Open Work, David Robey states, “Art is therefore political in its own special way; it produces new knowledge that can serve as a basis for changing the world, but it does not necessarily have an explicitly political content.”
Philosopher Henri Lefebvre believed:
“Without claiming to change life, but by fully reinstating the sensible in consciousness and in thought, [the cultural “rhythmanalyst,” i.e., the artist] would accomplish a tiny part of the revolutionary transformation of this world and this society in decline. Without any declared political position.”
Eco goes on to describe the ways in which concepts in science become integrated into the “social imaginary” with the aid of art:
“It is true that neither the principle of indeterminacy nor quantum mechanics tells us anything about the structure of the world, being mostly concerned with ways of describing certain aspects of it; but it is also true that they have shown us how certain values that we believed absolute and valid as metaphysical frameworks (such as the principle of causality or that of contradiction) are neither more nor less conventional than most new methodological principles and are as ineffective as a means of explaining the world or of founding a new one. What we find in art is less the expression of new scientific concepts than the negation of old assumptions. While science, today, limits itself to suggesting a probable structure of things, art tries to give us a possible image of this new world, an image that our sensibility has not yet been able to formulate, since it always lags a few steps behind intelligence – indeed, so much so, that we still say the sun “rises” when for three centuries we have known that it does not budge.
All this explains how contemporary art can be seen as an epistemological metaphor. The discontinuity of phenomena has called into question the possibility of a unified, definitive image of our universe; art suggests a way for us to see the world in which we live, and, by seeing it, to accept it and integrate it into our sensibility. The open work assumes the task of giving us an image of discontinuity. It does not narrate it; it is it. It takes on a mediating role between the abstract categories of science and the living matter of our sensibility; it almost becomes a sort of transcendental scheme that allows us to comprehend new aspects of the world.”